Soap Box: Turn Out the Lights, This Race is Over

Thursday, August 7, 2014
An open letter to Ohio Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald:

Ed FitzGerald (center) meets with supporters at a Dayton campaign rally this past January.

Dear Mr. FitzGerald Ed,

Let me try to put this as delicately as I can--what in the wide, wide world of sports were you thinking? How could a former FBI agent believe that in the current age of bulk data storage and instantaneous access to public records that those potentially embarrassing issues from your past would not become known? And you thought that this would simply be ignored in a political climate where style—and its associated “political games”—trumps substance? In the hands of a wily opposition research operation, rather innocuous events could be spun so far out of proportion so quickly that even the most firmly established, textbook-perfect political campaigns would be vulnerable to such shenanigans (and as we have seen since you announced your desire to be Ohio's next governor, yours does not fall into that category).

Where do I begin? Although I am not a politician, I have seen enough of them on television and in the movies to realize that the first lesson taught in Politics 101 is this--get out in front of a negative story and own it! Actually, the first lesson for a candidate with potentially disastrous PR-related flaws is to think long and hard about not putting themselves out there in the first place. I'm guessing you missed season one of House of Cards and the sad tale of Frank Russo--at least you had the opportunity to say no. Unfortunately, we are now well past the point of that happening so let's go back to that first first lesson.

In my own dealings with your campaign, it's obvious that you must have a very inexperienced communications director because someone with good media connections would have received a courtesy "heads-up" from the releasing newspaper or television station concerning any breaking story. Haven't you noticed how the Obama press office is constantly being beaten up in the media about their delayed responses to recent crises? Because they are the White House and their boss already won his election, they do have several very distinct luxuries that your campaign does not possess.

The first allegation involves some potentially salacious information that, when first heard, points directly to infidelity--a "mortal" sin within political circles if the person is still married when they are running or just won (do the names Herman Cain or Eliot Spitzer ring a bell?). While information dribbled out slowly from the campaign and from the attorney for the eyewitness to what happened in that parking lot a couple of hours before dawn, it occupied several news cycles where a pre-emptive statement--optimally one that corroborated with statements made by other campaign personnel--would have allowed the sensationalism to die down in perhaps 24 to 48 hours.

I am not in a position to judge and since the person who initially called the police has "lawyered up", I will simply take your word on the accounts you provided. However, the reasons given for being in a car at 4:30am less than ten miles from your home with a woman who is not your wife sound very flimsy (Designated driver? Checking GPS? Really?) and as we learned from the movie Contact, the simplest explanation generally tends to be the right one. If a comprehensive and definitive statement had been made ahead of the stories that did come out, yours might have been the simpler—and more believable—version.

The second "crisis" revolves around the issue--or, more specifically, the non-issuance--of driving documents needed to legally operate a motor vehicle in the state of Ohio, a place where you were an assistant prosecutor, city council member and mayor since moving back to the state from Illinois in 1998. As a military member, I seem to remember a strict requirement of having to apply for a license and vehicle registration within 30 days of moving into the state (I have had to do it twice and it wasn't that big of a deal). And who, besides an overly nervous teenager, applies for three learner's permits in lieu of just going to the nearest BMV office and taking the tests? I would've thought that perhaps prosecuting a case involving driving without a valid license would trigger something in your head to take care of that lingering issue.

In the days following those disclosures, your campaign has been in constant damage control mode, furiously attempting to diffuse what already came out and perhaps girding themselves to fend off any new allegations that might surface. The sad truth is that these were self-inflicted wounds and are the types of transgressions that, although minor in scope, significantly reflect upon a person's credibility and negatively impact the probability of voters placing them into a position of extreme responsibility and trustworthiness. How can we expect a person who cannot even make sure that his driver's license is still valid to be able to fulfill the many obligations of the office of governor? I personally don't see a direct correlation between them but I am not statistically representative of the majority of Ohio voters (and that fact is what is most troubling about the sad state of politics—and elections—in America today).

Your campaign already had one "reboot" when your initial running mate Eric Kearney had to step down due to he and his wife not paying back taxes--didn’t any of your own “skeletons” come to mind when you saw this man do the honorable thing with plenty of time before the election to find an alternate? I was at your Dayton event this past January when you announced Sharen Neuhardt as the new Democratic lieutenant governor pick and, from the reactions and energy in that room, you seemed to survive that "hiccup" and were showing improvement in statewide polls against your opponent, current Republican governor John Kasich. At one recent point, you were as close as six points to the incumbent but these recent revelations have reversed that trend in a precipitous manner (and that was before the negative RGA attack ad started running earlier this week).

This was going to be a very tough race for you to win. By fate, or perhaps just awful timing, you happened to be the best candidate from among the lean pickings the Democrats had this go-round. Among the big names in Ohio progressive circles, former governor Ted Strickland, current Columbus mayor Michael Coleman, and Cleveland mayor Frank G. Jackson all provided endorsements to your campaign but knew better than to take on the well-funded and politically savvy sitting governor this coming November (maybe it was a very lopsided primary victory over a Dayton-area "perennial" candidate with no statewide stature that gave your campaign too much confidence for the next round). In his three-plus years in office, Kasich has navigated a course where he did enough things that both placated his supporters (tax cuts, fracking) and opponents (accepting Obamacare funding for Medicaid expansion) yet did not piss off the "Tea Party" elements of his party to the point of running a candidate against him in a primary.

If your odds of winning could be parlayed into poker terms, then you would have had to draw a royal flush--an extremely rare combination--with each hand dealt from the same deck for four straight hands and this past week's news has you sitting at the table without any face cards going into the final three months of the general campaign. OK, perhaps I'm exaggerating just a wee bit but your only chance now is to hope that pictures surface of the governor in bed with a farm animal or show him pushing elderly people off a Columbus highway overpass into moving traffic because, as the late Don Meredith famously crooned on the Monday night football programs a few decades ago, "the party's over". It would take a collapse of metaphysical proportions to bring you back into contention but crazier things have happened in American politics so, if I can borrow another entertainment reference—Jim Carrey’s overly optimistic Lloyd Christmas character from the move Dumb and Dumber, I’m telling you there’s a chance...yeah!

This unexpected turn of events does have negative consequences for Ohio and for the Democrats this November--and possibly sooner. Without a presidential or US Senate contest, you are at the top of the ticket. Without a viable candidate in that position, voter turnout will probably be lower than what is normally seen for a mid-term, non-presidential/non-senatorial election. It will also reduces the amount of contributions due to people not wanting to sink their funds into a "dead-on-arrival" campaign, drying up what little money your campaign has on hand right now. While ethical constraints prevent me from donating, I do receive email requests and updates from your campaign that are publicly demonstrating an almost manic episode of late. One is titled "gutter politics" and derides your opponent's backers from addressing your recently revealed transgressions while the most recent one addresses your family's "challenge" with a cancer-stricken child in an attempt to take the "high road" and put those “oopsies” behind you.

What concerns me (and many people in the Columbus area) is the negative impact this recent news may have with the members of the selection committee for the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Buoyed by a tight gubernatorial race, that city's bid could be hamstrung by the poor choices made by you and your campaign with the announcement and the aftermath of those revelations. With Cleveland recently landing the GOP's quadrennial event (and possibly nominating Kasich as their presidential candidate in his home state), hosting the DNC's response less than 150 miles away in the governor's "back yard" would be a gutsy move in what could be an historic year in presidential politics in this "swingiest" of the swing states.

According to Ohio election laws, we are now past the point of replacing you with some other “sacrificial lamb” to await the $20 million-plus “shearing” that any Democrat would’ve faced this fall (and making such a knee-jerk move would’ve made the Ohio Democratic Party look more disheveled than they already do). Looking at your biography, I know that you are a good man, an educated man and a man who has already answered the call of service for his community, his state, his country and his party. In a perfect world, your resume would carry the day and put you neck-and-neck with your fall opponent. Unfortunately, that place does not exist and, in the “survival-of-the-richest” state of today's American political landscape, your name will become a footnote in Ohio political history and occupy the Wikipedia page documenting the race.

Come early October, I will dutifully drive down to my county’s party office and pick up yard signs to broadcast our support for you and the other Democrats on the ballot to our neighbors. We’ve done this for the past eight years, starting with the “blue tsunami” of 2006 that placed Democrats in almost complete charge of the state’s executive branch (the legislature is overwhelmingly “red”) and of Congress in the nation’s capital (to include the elevation of fellow northern Ohioan Sherrod Brown from the House to the Senate). The elections of 2010 saw those gains disappear in both Columbus and Washington and, thanks to the publicizing of those lapses of judgment, this year promises more of the status quo.

For the sake of the party, please don’t go extremely negative and continue to show the class that your most recent email conveyed when talking about your family’s health issues (although trotting them out today after being declared off-limits throughout the campaign smacks of a deflecting or sympathy tactic to stem the tide of recent bad publicity). You are only 46 years old so there is plenty of time for a comeback down the road. While you opted not to run for reelection as county executive, build upon your current stellar resume and perhaps position yourself for a less lofty objective. Depending on how challenger Pete Crossland does this November, incumbent Jim Renacci’s 16th District seat could be ripe for the picking due to the lingering campaign contribution problems that similarly ensnared Ohio treasurer Josh Mandel during his failed 2012 US Senate bid in his recent past. Rumor has it that 2016 could be a big year for Democratic "coattails"!

In closing, let's do a quick exit review—do no damage to your own brand or to the party’s over the next 80-plus days, have plans for that statistically improbable Kasich meltdown but get mentally prepared for the realities that will crash around you on November 4th and 5th, take a little time off to reflect and reconnect with your family, and then move on to 2015 to pursue your life's next professional challenge. Good luck to you and your family and thank you for stepping up to take one for the team this time around...your loyalty will be rewarded.


A Disappointed Democrat

P.S. I know that this might be interpreted by some online constituencies as me "slamming" Mr. FitzGerald but that is not necessarily the case. While I hope that he, at this late campaign stage, would consider this advice, I am also posting it to allow any aspirants for political office to learn from his mistakes in order to prevent a future--and unnecessary--recurrence.

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